Earlier this year when Tunisian President Kais Saied dismissed the country’s prime minister and closed the Parliament, he said he was doing so to “restore social peace ... and save the state.” He was addressing a series of crises that had been plaguing what many viewed as the one “Arab Spring” success story.
Tunisia had less than 7% of its public vaccinated against Covid-19, the economy was in shambles, there was widespread government corruption, and major cities were being rocked by mass protests.
A few weeks later, from mid-August through early September, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) conducted a survey of 1,551 Tunisian adults to examine their attitudes about satisfaction with their lives and optimism for the future, their most important priorities for their country and approval of the government’s handling of those concerns, the current crisis of governance, and the way forward.
What we found was that Tunisians are dissatisfied with their current situation (more say they are worse off now than they were five years ago) and pessimistic that their lives will get better in the next five years. Maybe the most telling expression of this deep dissatisfaction is the fact that 71% of Tunisians say that life was better before the 2010 revolution.
Tunisians blame the then government of Hisham Mechichi and Speaker of the Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi for the state of affairs and gave the government extremely low scores for its handling of what respondents say are the three top issues facing the country: controlling the pandemic (a performance rating of 22% positive), the economy (only 13% positive rating), and ending corruption (22% positive rating).
When asked to recommend the way forward, an overwhelming majority of Tunisians said that they did not want to restore the system as it was. ZRS has been polling in Tunisia since 2011 and a look back at findings shows how opinion has changed during the past decade.
Back in 2011, shortly after the revolution 54% of Tunisians said they were confident that the country was on the right track; the remaining 46% said they weren’t sure because it was too early to tell. By 2013, when we asked Tunisians to look back and tell us how hopeful they had been in 2011, 83% said they had been hopeful.
But in that same 2013 poll, only 39% said they were still hopeful, with 55% saying they were disappointed. Opinion had soured with only 27% saying the country was on the right track (with 64% saying it was on the wrong track).
Decline in satisfaction
This decline in satisfaction was because the Ennahda party that was leading the government at that time was seen as having been ineffective in addressing all of the major issues facing the country, with around two-thirds of respondents giving the government poor scores in dealing with the economy, protecting personal and civil rights, fighting extremism, and stopping corruption.
As a result, only 28% said they had confidence in Ennahda. It is important to note that Tunisians have little confidence in all of the country’s political parties and the Parliament. Unlike the situation in Egypt, where the objection to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government was based on concern with its ideologically-driven agenda, Tunisian frustration with Ennahda appeared to be driven by its failure to govern competently and deliver on the promises.
After several governments rose and fell over the next five years, by 2018 only 20% of Tunisians said the country was on the right track and only 21% said they were better off than they had been five years earlier. And only 25% had any confidence in the Parliament as an institution.
The Tunisian optimism
In 2019, in the midst of presidential and parliamentary elections, we witnessed an upward movement in Tunisians’ optimism. For the first time since 2011, more than 50% of Tunisians said they were optimistic about the future. But that optimism collapsed by 2021 owing largely to the government’s failure to address the pandemic, the economy, and corruption.
What comes through quite clearly from our past decade of polling in Tunisia is that precisely because there is a vibrant democratic culture in the country, public opinion can be quite volatile.
Tunisians are deeply dissatisfied with the previous government’s inability to address what overwhelming majorities say are the most pressing issues facing the country.
While it appears that Tunisians are not of one mind on to how to move forward toward securing their future, there appears to be strong consensus in the public’s desire to have both the election law and the Constitution amended.
While the public appears to have more confidence in the President than they do in the Speaker or the Prime Minister, President Saied should recognise that he doesn’t have much time to deliver both on structural change and meeting the basic unmet needs of a deeply divided and restless polity.
James J. Zogby is a political columnist and President of Arab American Institute